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Collision Course: the Flu Season Crashes Into the Pandemic

Because of the pandemic, hospitals and healthcare professionals are already stretched to the limit for handling COVID-19 patients; if a major flu epidemic breaks out, critically needed hospital beds and medical staff will be strained to handle the additional surge of flu hospitalizations

The rapidly approaching 2020 flu season in America this fall will be like none other in our country’s recent history. With the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases continuing to strain the U.S. health care system, the onset of influenza season during the pandemic creates a daunting ‘double whammy’ health predicament for hospitals and medical professionals to fight, as two different viruses --- whose symptoms are similar and can be severe --- simultaneously impact young and old alike.

In this article, Seth Glickman, M.D., chief health officer at Blue Shield of California, answers timely questions about the vital importance of getting a flu shot for the 2020 influenza season.

Why is it so important to get a flu shot in 2020?

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Seth Glickman, M.D.

In my history as a medical professional, I can’t remember a more important time for everyone to get a flu shot than this year – that’s because the COVID-19 pandemic is still very active. The flu shot protects you, your family, friends and community from the likelihood of serious illness, the need for visits to a doctor, and potential hospitalizations and deaths. It is an important preventive tool, especially for those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart problems or lung disease, and it protects women during and after pregnancy. Also, it reduces the severity of illness if you do get sick with the flu, despite getting a shot. 

Because of the pandemic, hospitals and healthcare professionals are already stretched to the limit for handling COVID-19 patients; if a major flu epidemic breaks out, critically needed hospital beds and medical staff will be strained to handle the additional surge of flu hospitalizations.

We all need to do our part to stay healthy and preserve scarce medical resources for COVID-19 and those in greatest need. It’s simple to do: Get your flu shot and protect yourself and those you care about.

How long does it take a flu vaccine to build immunity in someone who has been vaccinated?

It takes two weeks for the vaccine to build immunity after a person gets a flu shot.

Are flu vaccines safe?

Flu vaccines have a 50-year history of safety. Hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. have received flu shots over the past five decades, and extensive research during this period supports the safety of receiving a flu vaccine. Some people may experience minor side effects, such as a sore arm where the shot was given or muscle aches but those typically pass quickly. Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare. If they do occur, it is usually within a few minutes to a few hours after vaccination, and effective treatments are available.

When is best time to get flu shot?

Getting a flu shot at the start of the flu season, in September and October, is the best choice. However, if you don’t get vaccinated then, you can still benefit by getting a flu shot while the virus is spreading. A typical flu season starts in the fall and runs through the spring.

Are there some people who should not get a flu shot due to significant health problems?

Yes. Children under the age of six months should not get a flu shot. People with certain health issues, such as autoimmune disease who take specific medications and those with severe allergies to certain ingredients in the vaccine may not be able to have the flu shot. You should check with your doctor if you have any concerns about receiving a flu vaccine.

Does the flu shot protect against all flu viruses?

No. There are many kinds of flu viruses and they are always changing. Every year the World Health Organization (WHO) reviews the results of surveillance, laboratory and clinical studies about which vaccines are circulating, and are most likely to circulate during an upcoming flu season and it makes recommendation on the composition of the influenza vaccines for different parts of the world. Each country then decides which viruses should be included in flu vaccines licensed in their country. In the U.S, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes the final decision about vaccine viruses for flu vaccines.

Can a flu vaccine give you the flu?
No, flu vaccines cannot cause the flu. Flu vaccines given with a needle (i.e., flu shots) are currently made in the following ways:

  • flu viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ (killed) and that therefore are not infectious
  • flu viruses that have been attenuated (weakened), so that they will not cause illness
  • a single gene from a flu virus (as opposed to the full virus) in order to produce an immune response without causing infection

What is the difference between standard dose flu shots and high-dose shots?

The standard-dose shot is given to people who are six months or older. The high-dose shot is often recommended for people who are 65 years and older. It contains four times the amount of antigen contained in regular flu shots and it is associated with a stronger immune response following vaccination.

Will the flu shot protect me against COVID-19?

No. These are two different diseases and they act very differently, although they may have similar symptoms. There is no vaccine yet for COVID-19, but there is a safe, reliable vaccine for the flu. The flu shot won’t protect you against the coronavirus, but it will protect you and your family from serious illness during the flu season. Everyone should take advantage of protecting themselves with the 2020 flu vaccine as soon as possible.

What else can I do to protect myself during flu season?

Besides getting the flu shot, you can follow the same steps that help protect you from COVID-19. Wash your hands frequently using the proper technique. Don’t touch your face. Maintain social distancing and wear a face covering in public. If you are sick, stay home and isolate yourself from healthy members of your household if possible.